The same year that Henry Ford manufactured his Model A, a far-sighted plumber named W.B. Guimarin moved from Atlanta to Columbia to work on the city’s first high-rise – all 12 stories of it.
W.B. Guimarin couldn’t know then that, more than 100 years later, sleek white vans boasting his name in brilliant orange would be a near-unavoidable daily sight on the highways and back roads of South Carolina.
Or that the company he founded in 1903 would manage a myriad of hospital, school and industrial projects throughout his adopted state, from design through the life of a building.
“Everything has changed and continues to change,” says Carroll Heyward, co-owner and CEO of W.B. Guimarin & Co.
From the first, W.B. Guimarin specialized in plumbing and mechanical work. His namesake company – the one Carroll’s grandfather bought from “Old Man” Guimarin in 1932 – now handles projects big and small, from schools to hospitals to industrial plants.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the small-time, family feel of the business. Carroll Jr. and Sidney, Carroll’s children, both work for the company as project managers and eventually will manage the company their great grandfather bought.
(Back row, L to R) Bill Waters, President; Jeff Tober, Vice President, Service Department; Bob Privitte, Chief Financial Officer. (Front row, L to R) Sidney Heyward, Business Development Manager and Project Manager; Carroll Heyward, CEO; Carroll Heyward, Jr., Project Manager; Church Powers, Executive Vice President.
Jeff Tober is vice president for service and service manager for W.B. Guimarin & Co. He has been with the company for 18 years, after serving as national and regional sales manager for other, larger concerns.
“It’s a small company and, as a group, we operate like a small company,” Jeff says. That means company managers, not underlings, make business contacts and build relationships with clients.
“A larger organization is cold and impersonal – it’s just numbers,” Jeff says. “At Guimarin, what you do is noticed.”
Customers notice, too. Because of the company’s small size, Jeff says, “We have a better knowledge of our clients. We’re able to make them happier, and they see the value of our service and stay with us.”
Guimarin’s retention rate for HVAC customers is 95 percent – far above the industry average of 75 percent to 80 percent. That’s a satisfaction rate Jeff aims to maintain.
When he hires employees, Jeff looks for attitude, he says – not aptitude. He can teach a worker a task; what he can’t teach is getting along with people. Workers either come to the job with this skill or not.
An eye toward the future
W.B. Guimarin & Co. directly employs 121 people, down from about 200 in 2002. The company ran its best at 185 employees, Carroll says. That was three years ago.
The sour economy hasn’t cost just individual jobs. Company contracts are smaller, as well.
“Typically, we do 40 projects in a year,” Carroll says. “That’s 65 to 70 percent of where we were two or three years ago. It’s just the times.”
Still, Carroll, 65, has no doubts that when he sells W.B. Guimarin & Co. to Carroll Jr., 26, and Sidney, 30, in a few years, the business will remain strong.
“Columbia has been very generous to us,” Carroll says of his hometown and the company’s base of operations. “In return, it’s important that we support our community and support our employees as best we can.”
Guimarin’s employees earn salaries well above the state average. Company support also comes in the form of continuing education. A well-trained yet lean staff can handle a variety of projects.
“We don’t promote a big-business feel, but what we try to do is have big-business competencies,” Carroll says. “We like to have employees spend the rest of their lives with us.” That may be in Columbia, or in Charleston or Greenville.
“It’s easier to care about your community if you’re from the community, have been raised in the community and have prospered in the community,” Carroll says. “I’m really proud that the fourth generation of Heywards is now working in the business.”
One reason W.B. Guimarin sold the business to Carroll’s grandfather, his banker, is that he had no sons – only daughters. It’s a sign of modern times for an old business that Sidney Heyward will get the opportunity that Guimarin’s daughters never did – to own and manage the family business.
All around the town . . . and state
Guimarin vans travel around the Midlands, to the Upstate and into the Lowcountry. The company designs and manages projects for health care, education, government, industrial, commercial and cultural institutions.
W.B. Guimarin & Co. sells its services directly to those who need them. It also sells indirectly, as a subcontractor. And it bids for projects, such as government contracts.
Some of the company’s more noticeable mechanical, plumbing and HVAC projects include:
- Health care: Palmetto Health Baptist, Palmetto Health Richland, The Dorn Veterans Administration and Providence Hospitals in Columbia and Lexington Medical Center in Lexington and West Columbia.
- Educational: Hand and Irmo middle schools and USC’s Strom Thurmond Fitness Center in Columbia.
- Commercial: TD Bank and 1600 Hampton St. in Columbia and the Francis Marion and Market Pavilion hotels in Charleston.
- Cultural and religious: EdVenture Children’s Museum and Shandon Baptist Church in Columbia and the Greenville History Museum and Christ Church Episcopal in Greenville.
Carroll himself is chairman of the Columbia Museum of Art Commission; a member of the mechanical board for the city of Columbia; and board member of the Central Carolina Community Foundation, which manages $95 million in donor and community money designated for such programs as improving literacy.
W.B. Guimarin provides financial and other support to the United Way of the Midlands, Columbia Green, SisterCare, the Boy Scouts of America, the Palmetto Health Foundation and the Sisters of Charity Foundation.